You could say Todd Olson’s entire life has been a lesson in mindfulness. As a child, he battled an inoperable brain tumor. In 2005, he dealt with a second tumor and, in 2016, he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. But adversity has only strengthened his resolve to be a better artist, teacher, and friend.
“When you’re a child with serious health concerns, [childhood] goes very quickly. I think coping with everything has gotten easier over the years. You learn to make your peace with the unknowns in life. I’ve always been close to my family, and they’ve helped me through the most difficult times. They’ve been my rock, so to speak.”
Olson was born in 1979 and raised near Iron River, Wisconsin. “I loved the outdoors. We were always playing outside. I loved to fish, too. Where we lived in the country, there were miles of woods in every direction.”
Todd Olson folds life’s challenges into art and volunteer work.
When he was 10, his sight began to disappear. Before long, he could barely see to read or play his favorite computer games. His parents brought him to an eye specialist who confirmed that a brain tumor was the cause.
It was during this time that Olson discovered the art of origami, or Senbazuru in Japanese. “About a year or so before I got sick, I met a Japanese foreign exchange student who introduced me to origami...I remember he brought in these beautiful papers that he shaped into the most amazing figures. I got a book of origami and went to work. And being that young, it took me about 10 or 15 minutes to give up on it,” he says with a laugh.
Later, while in the hospital, he received a box with 1,000 paper cranes from the exchange student and his family. In Japanese legend, the recipient of 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. “Somehow it just resonated with me and inspired me. I started folding again right there in the hospital. My sight was going downhill at the time, but I could work with my hands and get close enough to what I was doing—so I made it work.”
Over the past six months since his stroke, Olson has slowly but surely produced origami animals, flowers, dragons, and Star Wars figures, all of which can be found on his website, ThePaperCrane.net. “I mainly use just my right hand. With the paralysis in my left hand, the muscles tighten up quickly. It just doesn’t have the dexterity like it used to. I’ll use my left hand to hold the paper down and I’ll fold using my right hand.”
Olson finds inspiration in his faith and in the beauty of his natural surroundings. “I was working in Drummond, Wisconsin, at the school. I worked with quite a few special needs kids. I really loved it, but after my second bout with cancer, my doctor told me to take it easier than I had been. That’s about the time I moved to Duluth.
“I’m a devout Christian. In my spare time, I love to walk along the Lakewalk. I love Lake Superior. Sometimes I’ll find a spot to sit and meditate along the shoreline. I look forward to teaching origami classes again at Pineapple Arts here in Duluth.
Someday I’d like to resume some of my volunteering. Because of my own life experience, I’ve volunteered at both hospitals in town—in the pediatrics unit and the cancer center...I also want to invest more time in the arts community.”